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Book Review: “Alien Seas” Edited by Michael Carroll and Rosaly Lopes

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OK, in the spirit of full disclosure and openness, I should stay from the start that Michael Carroll has always been one of my very favourite space art artists – I’ve grown up with his work, seeing it in the pages of monthly astronomy magazines and books too, and it has taken me not only to my favourite planet, Mars, but also to some of the most beautiful, most stunning places in the solar system and the universe beyond its outer rim – so I was pretty much guaranteed to love this book from the moment I heard about it, before I’d even seen it on a website or looked at its contents. And Rosaly Lopes is not just a hugely accomplished planetary scientist, but a great writer too. So when I heard that these two had collaborated on a book about “Alien seas” I was as excited as a dog locked overnight in a lamp post factory. But would the book itself live up to the potential..?

Don’t be daft. Of course it does.

When I was growing up a “sea” was a strictly terrestrial thing – a body of water on the Earth, simple as that. But to me, as a child, living and going to school in a town many miles away from the windblown scent of salt and the cawing of seagulls, The Sea was a magical thing, a living thing, as exotic a place as Narnia, or Middle Earth. I remember when, on our annual summer trip when we were taken by bus to a coastal town called St Bees, I would stand on the edge of the beach, ignoring everyone else rushing past me with buckets and spades, and just stare out at the ocean, marvelling at its beauty, seeing it shimmering and dancing in the sunlight, hearing its call – and wondering what lay beyond…

Today, thanks to the discoveries of unmanned space probes and the teams which build and operate them, we live in a world where seas are not restricted to our planet. Science fiction has come true. As film maker and explorer James Cameron describes in his thoughtful Foreword, in the past couple of decades we have learned that the solar system has other seas, even more exotic seas in places and on worlds we never dared imagine possible. And through beautifully-written essays by some of the most knowledgeable scientists in the field, accompanied with even more beautiful illustrations, this book takes us by the hand, lifts us off the Earth, takes us to the edges of those alien seas, sits us down on their beaches, and tells us their stories.

Like all the best astronomy and science books, “Alien Seas” is a spaceship of the imagination, and it takes us on the ultimate tourist trip, not just through space but through time, too. It takes us back in time to see the Lost Oceans of Venus and Mars; clinging to our seats it takes us on a daring dive down to the Sea of Saturn which lurks beneath its clouds, where diamonds fall down from the sky; peering out of its windows we enjoy stunning views of the magical and mysterious Sand Seas of Titan and Mars,with their towering, wind-blown dunes, and lands us within walking distance of Titan’s lakes and seas of molasses-hued ethane. All these places and the processes which formed them are described in great detail – but never with an overdose of jargon or scientific gobbledygook – by specialists who have worked on unravelling their mysteries, so reading this book is like being a passenger on the ultimate solar system cruise, with VIP window seats and the cream of today’s planetary scientists as guest lecturers.

But as fascinating as I found the science, of course as a space art fan the book’s main attraction for me was its illustrations, and they are genuinely inspiring. Co-editor Michael Carroll shows us such wonders as the interior of the Tupan Caldera on Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, with its 1000m high cliffs and pools of glowing liquid sulphur, and to the almost Tolkienesque geysers of Enceladus.

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Above: A clearly fascinated Chi – not usually a fan of seas of any kind – reads all about the subsurface seas of Europa and other icy moons

And as beautiful as the Mars paintings are, my favourite illustration in the book is of a world far, far away from my beloved red planet. On page 56, in the chapter ‘Sand Seas of the Solar System’, is a painting of a small unmanned robotic drone aircraft called AVIATR just about to land on one of Titan’s great dark dust dunes. Stark white against the caramel and coffee hues of the landscape, the plane is dwarfed by a truly enormous dust dune rearing up from the far horizon… That painting has brought Titan to life for me in a way no other illustration I’ve ever seen has managed to.

The closing section of the book is a gallery of space art images, and while I would have been more than happy with several pages of works by Michael Carroll it was an absolute treat to see “maritime themed” paintings by some of the world’s most respected space artists there, such as Don Dixon, David Hardy and others.

Even without its wonderful illustrations this book would be worth buying. The story of the discovery of alien seas is a thrilling one, and with yesterday’s announcement by NASA of the Curiosity Mars rover’s discovery that it has been driving across the remains of the bed of an ancient martian freshwater lake, this book’s publication is very timely, and offers readers a great opportunity to “catch up” with the state of this area of planetary science. But when you add the illustrations it becomes a lavish tourist travel guide  to some of the most fascinating and beautiful places in our solar system, and beyond.

Now I’ve grown up I still feel a sense of wonder, and still her the far horizon calling, whenever I stand on the edge of the sea. But now I can stand outside on a clear night, look up, and know that there are seas Out There too. That’s a magical thing. And this book brings that magic to life.

Get it. You’ll love it. It really is as simple as that.

 

“ALIEN SEAS” – “Oceans in Space”

Editors: Michael Carroll and Rosaly Lopes

Publisher: Springer

ISBN: 978-1-4614-7472-2

 

 

 

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